Hopping a flight to an exotic island. Inviting new friends over and working hand-in-hand to build a community. Spending a beautiful day outdoors fishing and foraging and exploring. While these things are widely frowned upon during a global pandemic, they are exactly the kinds of activities that players experience in the latest Nintendo Switch exclusive, Animal Crossing: New Horizons.
Your game begins—in classic Animal Crossing fashion—with a trip to a faraway land. Your Nook Inc. Deserted Island Getaway Package’s initial offerings are fairly limited: airfare and accommodations (if you consider a tent and a cot “accommodations”), a new Nook Phone, and a couple of neighbors… which sort of flies in the face of the whole “deserted island” concept, when you really think about it.
Raccoon industrialist Tom Nook and his younger relations, Timmy and Tommy, set up shop on the island’s center, offering aid and advice in equal measure from their Resident Services tent. On arrival day, you’ll familiarize yourself with both the island—the basic layout of which you can choose from a handful of options—and New Horizons‘ controls.
Obviously, the left analog stick controls movement while the right gives you some basic outdoor camera controls—from a tight, ground-level view to the more traditional aerial to an even further away ¾ isometric. These help ensure that you can take in your surroundings, spotting bugs and buried fossils even behind trees and buildings.
The X button brings up the all-important inventory screen—known in AC-speak as your pockets. While small at first, it is one of the many elements that can be expanded thanks to the new Nook Miles system. ZL whips out your Nook Phone, which, along with features like your camera and Critterpedia, is what you’ll use to chart your Nook Miles.
This includes an expansive list of goals and benchmarks, and reaching each rewards you with Miles points to spend on items and upgrades to further your island’s development. Press the + button on the Miles screen to explore Nook Miles+, a set of five shorter-term goals like planting a tree or catching a few fish. As you complete each, a new goal slides into place, making it an easy way to farm those now-important Miles. Eventually, you’ll even unlock Miles+ multipliers, which can double (or more) your reward payout!
While you’re out and about, the R trigger brings up your multiplayer chat window, while ZR brings up your available emotions. This time around, emotions are learned from your fellow island residents, though you’ll need to become good friends with them by talking regularly and exchanging gifts before these dialog options begin to become available.
The B button, as always, helps you cancel choices or back out of interactions, and Y is used to employ your suite of tools. Axes, shovels, nets, fishing rods, watering cans, and slingshots all make a return, alongside new additions like the ladder, used to scale your island’s cliffs, and the vaulting pole for crossing rivers.
One of the earliest and most useful Nook Miles upgrades is the equipment wheel. This allows you to use up on the D-pad to bring up an eight-item wheel of tools, which you can register by favoriting from your inventory.
Lest you thought you could just set that shovel as a favorite item and forget it, Animal Crossing: New Horizons leans heavily on the concept of item durability. Equipment, along with furniture and wall/flooring coverings, can be made at crafting tables, but while that rocking chair’s not likely to crumble beneath you, your axe, shovel, and the like will break. Often.
New Horizons‘ crafting component relies on DIY Recipes, component lists used to craft everything from bookshelves to bamboo drums. Early on, you’ll learn basic recipes for butterfly nets and fishing rods, but these are of the flimsy variety, meaning they are highly prone to breakage.
Thankfully, both these items just require a few tree branches to craft, and your island is lousy with them! Add a stone to those branches, and you have a flimsy axe. Use that axe to chop some hardwood from those same trees, and you can even make a flimsy shovel.
Recipes in Animal Crossing: New Horizons can be acquired in many different ways. There are DIY books that can be purchased from the Nooklings, but that’s far from your only option.
Definitely get in the habit of trolling your island’s shore first thing each day, as messages in bottles wash up regularly, and each contains a DIY recipe from some remote land. Another great resource is your neighbors. If you stroll into their home to find them frantically crafting at their workbench, strike up a conversation. They’ll be more than happy to share their knowledge.
Your first focus, one easily attainable via the aforementioned DIY books, is better gear.
Your new island paradise is rich with natural resources, and you’ll need them all to build a town worthy of… whatever name you decide to give it.
Shaking a tree—long an Animal Crossing staple—could net you a tree branch, the odd Bell (that’s Animal Crossing‘s money), or a swarm of angry wasps. Nobody said island life was easy. But strike that same tree with an axe, and it produces component wood.
Wood comes in three varieties, dispensed seemingly at random. These include hardwood, softwood, and wood… wood. Most DIY recipes require one or more types, so you’ll want to spend a good chunk of your day playing lumberjack.
The complication is that a tree can only sustain a few strikes before it falls over, leaving you with nothing but an unsightly stump and diminishing resources. The trick, then, is to know your tools. The aforementioned flimsy axe can be used to make three successive cuts, each producing wood but not damaging the tree—on account of its flimsiness. But what if you do want to topple that tree?
In that case, you’ll need the traditional Animal Crossing axe, and that requires iron. Iron nuggets are mined by striking your island’s rocks, but iron is an uncommon drop. More commonly, striking a rock will produce stone or clay, with iron and the even rarer gold only occasionally coming out. Properly timing your strikes can get you up to eight components, so diligence is key.
Use an iron nugget to make an axe and those same three whacks will destroy the tree. Dig up the stump with your shovel, and you’ve reclaimed some prime real estate from Mother Nature.
On arrival day, once you’ve settled on a spot for your tent (and helped your starter neighbors find their own digs), you’ll return to the Resident Services tent to begin the familiar give and take of Animal Crossing. In short, if you want to move from a tent to a house, you’ll have to pay the piper.
In this instance, Tom Nook is said piper.
It’s no surprise that, over time, you can move from a modest one-room abode to a stately manor; you just have to be willing and able to collect that filthy lucre.
You’ll also notice that the game’s controls function slightly differently indoors. More specifically the right analog stick gives you full 360-degree camera control as well as a more degrees of zoom. The D-pad, too, takes on new importance.
Even without a closet, your home has built-in storage, and you can easily move an item there from the inventory screen. Pressing right on the D-pad brings up said house storage, and lets you easily things back to your pockets.
Up on the D-pad gives you three lighting options. The first is regular natural light, the second is washed out fluorescent, and the third turns the lights off (though lamps are unaffected).
Down on the D-pad shifts to an overhead perspective and is used for fine-tuning your design. You can easily click and drag, rotate, or quickly store any piece of furniture you have out in the room.
Pressing the + button shifts things again, allowing you to cycle through your wall decorations. Wall items now include everything from posters and pennants to lamps and shelves, and this view lets you put them exactly where you want them.
Since overall storage is now built-in to your abode, New Horizons gives closets and chests newfound importance. All stored clothing automatically shows up when you open your closet. This allows you to mix and match your outfits, and you character even strikes adorable little poses as you try things on.
Clothing in Animal Crossing: New Horizons has been a real high point for me. In addition to shirts, shoes, pants, and socks, I’ve already managed to amass a collection of wigs, eyewear, a couple of backpacks, and even a beard!
But you aren’t just limited to expressing yourself via what you wear. If you approach a mirror in your house—or, it turns out, anyone else’s—you’ll be immediately taken back to the game’s opening character creation screen.
New hairstyles and colors, like furniture and equipment recipes, can be purchased with Nook Miles, and you can change up your look as often as you like. This includes eye color and shape, nose and mouth type, and even gender.
There’s also a new face paint option that lets you place your custom designs on your forehead and cheeks. I haven’t done anything with that yet, but I’m sure when the online design community gets its hands on this, we’ll see some real magic.
Just as your own home grows and changes, so does the island itself. You’ll find yourself securing raw materials for the Nookling so that they can open a proper shop of their own. But Nook’s Cranny is only the beginning.
You’ll also help Tom move from a meager tent to a full-fledged Resident Services building, with a proper services counter joining its recycle bin and Nook Stop redemption terminal. These renovations will also attract the famed Mabel Able who, after setting up rummage sale-style in the town square for a few days, will eventually branch out into a shop of her own.
Old favorite Blathers also returns, and if you can entice him with enough wildlife and fossil donations, he’ll be more than happy to establish a truly inspiring museum on your own humble shores.
Of course, all this means very little if you don’t attract more residents to your island oasis. And the more diligent work you do to better your island, the more renown it seemingly develops. In time, folks will migrate to your island to see all you’ve done with the place. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do a little recruitment of your own.
One of your island’s first amenities is the airport. Run by the Dodo brothers, it’s a charmingly modern oceanfront destination—even in the island’s more primitive early days.
Inside you can hang out in its air-conditioned splendor, send some postcards to your new arrivals, or have Orville and Wilbur fly you to an adjacent island destination. While the primary focus here is online travel to other players’ islands, you can use Nook Miles Tickets to take a special island tour.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons has a subtle ecological message. You must respect your island, and even when you develop the ability to change its very structure and layout, there’s still an air of reverence to its natural beauty.
Even trash items—boots, tires, and the like sometimes acquired when fishing—can now be used in DIY recipes of their own, transforming them into instruments and playground equipment.
New Horizons teaches you to appreciate your island and its beauty.
But screw those other islands!
On a Nook Miles excursion, Wilbur Dodo takes you to a tiny impermanent island that you’ll never see again, and that means all bets are off. You can harvest every fruit, chop every tree, bash every rock, and even use your shovel to uproot its flowers and transplant them back to your own island.
Still, it’s not all about the environmental destruction. Sometimes you’ll encounter a lone wanderer, and they’ll be thrilled to hear about the work you’re doing back home. They’ll even jump at the chance to move there themselves, providing you and Tom can work out a place for them to stay.
Animal Crossing continues to be a communication game, a community sim where your most important interactions are with your friends and neighbors. Even in New Horizons, where so much of the game is about harvesting and crafting, this still stands out.
Admittedly, I was on day six before I was asked to make a delivery from one animal to another. (Any old school Animal Crossing player can tell you that this was the bread and butter of the earlier games!) Yet still, we all visit each other. We share our respective bounties. We post vaguely insulting jibes at each other on the town bulletin board.
Okay, admittedly, it’s just me doing that last one.
But when I learned how to craft fences, everybody got a fence. (Even Hazel and her prominent unibrow.) This wasn’t a stated objective; the game gave me no indication that this is anything I should do or that there would be some kind of reward for my diligence, but I did it anyway.
This is my island and these are my people…
my animals? These are my neighbors.
I built Pudge the lazy bear’s house right next to Pierce the jock eagle. Why? Because I thought they’d be good for each other. I mean, Pierce likes to jog and Pudge likes to Naruto run along the beach; those are kind of the same, right?
What I’m getting at is that Animal Crossing: New Horizons represents the world we all desperately want to live in. It’s not all flowers and balloons. Sometimes it’s predatory tarantulas that bite you during your evening walk and sometimes those balloons pop at the wrong time and drop their mysterious quarry into the sea. But it is your world. The world you make it.
Look, the graphical representation in Animal Crossing: New Horizons is inviting and understatedly perfect. Its musical melodies are enchanting and its ambient environmental sounds soothing. The level of customization available—not just with regard to its bevy of furniture and clothing designs, but also the numerous ways you can further tweak so many of those items to your liking—is second to none.
It represents not just a leap forward for the franchise, but a calculated leap—one that is well reasoned and deliberate.
Sure, you can draw a straight line from so much of its content all the way back to the early 2000s, all the way back to the GameCube, but in the same way, it acknowledges all the games in the franchise. You get the calming pick-up-and-play elements of Wild World and New Leaf, the expanded indoor and outdoor decorating options of Happy Home Designer, and the quirky connectivity of Amiibo Festival. You even get the crafting elements of Pocket Camp, a game I still find myself playing daily anytime I need a moment from life’s hectic pace.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a game about control and creativity and connection. At a time when we are being told daily to stay inside, to keep to ourselves, to fear the integrity of anything and everything outside the confines of our own front doors, New Horizons is the antidote.
Marv and Gulliver aren’t interlopers or threats, they’re just good-natured weirdoes adding necessary color to our lives. No one’s hoarding toiler paper and hand sanitizer from Nook’s Cranny. That stranger at your island’s campground isn’t a threat, she’s just a friend you haven’t met yet. Hamlet and Zell aren’t going to look at you funny if you sneeze or shiver. (In fact, they’re far more likely to express concern about yesterday’s unfortunate bee sting incident.)
If you need a break from the real world, if you’re stuck inside and crave the wide-open spaces, if you are scared or sad or overwhelmed, Animal Crossing: New Horizons is there. It is exactly the game the world needs at this terrifying and tumultuous time, and it was well worth the wait.
Review materials provided by Nintendo of America. This post contains affiliate links. My island will have about three weeks’ worth of growth by the March 20 launch date; feel free to come by to check things out and grab some cherries and pears for your own island!
This post was last modified on March 15, 2020 10:16 pm
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